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BackStress and Aging

The stress response evolved from the need to deal with a dangerous or urgent situation. In such a situation, the adrenal gland produces the hormone cortisol, which in turn, in order to give us the edge we may need, signals the body to:1

  • Nearly halt the digestive process (to give blood to the rest of the body)
  • Raise blood sugar
  • Raise cholesterol (for energy/food)
  • Raise blood pressure
  • Raise heart rate
  • Raise fibrogen levels (which raises case you lose the fight)
  • Raise metabolism
  • Decrease blood flow to the liver and digestive organs
  • Suppress the immune system

These things are all effective in supporting a quick burst of physical action, or to get you through a demanding period. But when our modern lifestyles cause our cortisol levels to be chronically elevated, causing the temporary blood profile changes listed above to become quasi-permanent, and without physical action whereby the elevated lipid and sugars in the blood can be burned up, we have a big problem! From this perspective, it should not be surprising that chronic stress is a major contributor to a number of dysfunctional states of the body.

Type A - with Anger

Is has long been believed that a Type A personality - one characterized by over-ambition, drive, impatience and a deadline-based lifestyle, is strongly correlated with the risk of death. More recent research has refined this understanding, however, more precisely to be that the risk is primarily a function anger, cynicism and hostility.3

A study in the journal Circulation reported that people who become angry easily had a threefold risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death, compared with people who scored low on the anger scale.4 Another study showed that lawyers who had higher scores for hostility during law school as measured by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a standard personality test, were 4 times more likely to dieduring a 25 year follow up period.5 Yet another 25-year follow-up study of 255 physicians showed that the hostile physicians were 6 times more likely to die than those who scored low for hostility.6

Telomeres and Stress

In a recent study, published in the November 30 2004 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a UCSF-led team determined that chronic stress, and the perception of life stress, each had a significant impact on three biological factors -- the length of telomeres, the activity of telomerase, and levels of oxidative stress -- in immune system cells known as peripheral blood mononucleocytes, in healthy premenopausal women. The telomeres of women with the highest perceived (self-reported) psychological stress had undergone the equivalent of approximately 10 years of additional telomere aging, compared with the women across both groups who had the lowest perception of being stressed.7

Testing for Stress Levels

Cortisol is the marker of your stress levels. You can test for that hormone, as well as DHEA levels and the proper ratio between the two, by taking an adrenal stress index test, which you can get form a physician and test at home with saliva samples. A result in the range of 6.5 - 11.0 ng/ml is typically regarded as normal.

Keeping Stress in Check

Here are some simple and practical things you can do to keep stress levels low:

  • Regular exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • A healthy, low glycemic-index diet

More ambitious activities effective in lowering stress include Meditation, yoga and regular massages. More elusive, but probably more important are maintaining healthy relationships, time management, life balance and a healthy marriage, the secrets to which we won't pretend to hold, other than offering the suggestion that you might give them a higher priority than perhaps you might otherwise have had you not known the extent of the damage stress can cause.


1. R. Misslin 2003 "The defense system of fear: behavior and neurotoxicity" Clin Neurophysio. April: 33(2):55-56

2. Burg, Matthew. Stress, Behavior and Heart Disease, Yale University School of Medicine Heart Book

3. Burg, Matthew. Psychological factors in coronary artery disease: Epidemiologic evidence. Circulation July 1987, Volume 76, Supplement 1.

4. Kawachi et al. 1998. Prospective study of a self-report Type A scale and risk of coronary heart disease. Circulation Aug 4;98(5):405.

5. JC Barefoot et. al. 1989. The Cook-Medley hostility scale. Item content and ability to predict survival. Pyschosom Med Jan-Feb;51(1):46-57

6. JC Barefoot et. al. 1983. Hostility, CHD incidence and total mortality, a twenty-five-year follow up study of 255 physicians. Item content and ability to predict survival. Pyschosom Med Mar;45(1):59-63

7. Blackburn, Elizabeth. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress